Power and community

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On the Use of Scripture: Part II of III

February 27, 2013 | Feature | Number 5
By Bruce Hiebert, Special to Canadian Mennonite

Reading the Bible for ethics is an act of power. Reading the Bible for ethics is about using the language and images of the Bible to transform ourselves and those around us. It is not the power called control or force. It is the power called “shaping the operational imagination.” It is the power of seeing the world one way and not another, and then acting differently because of that way of seeing.

Reading the Bible for ethics is about finding a set of images that can be used with authority and confidence to confront others and change circumstances. The Bible does this by providing us with powerful images and imaginations of what the world can be like, and what it means to live in a universe under the control of a loving God.

The problem is that the Bible does this in the midst of the systems, groups and communities within which we live, and that makes it complicated. It isn’t just about an operational imagination that lives in God’s world. The power of the Bible is about each of us trying to get our lazy way in the midst of those with whom we live, work and play. That’s the tension of the Bible and its power: We get to use it and sometimes we use it to create the world God wants, and sometimes we use it to create a very self-centred world. In thinking about the Bible and power, one more point we need to pay attention to is that power is always relational.

Power is not something one has; it is something that emerges in the give-and-take of everyday interactions. My power to change the world only exists in so far as you can be changed to match the world I want to create. My use of the Bible confronts your use of the Bible as we each seek our own version of the world.

The result is that the Bible is a contested document. Because it carries such powerful images that can radically change our ideas about what is possible, everyone wishes to control the way it works. If I am able to determine which images and language are authoritative, and you are not, then I can influence your behaviour in the direction I want. Conversely, if you can control it, then you determine the direction. This is why the issue of interpretation is so important. Whoever controls the interpretation is the one who is then in a position to guide the behaviour of the others in the fashion he or she chooses.

Of course, no one of us can control the Bible. Control of the Bible is something we determine as communities. We develop standards and practices about how the Bible can be used and who can do the using. Central to those standards are the points of social consensus as we develop the strategies and practices of our communities as a whole.

For example, if we honour only university-educated people and call upon them for leadership in our communities, then they will be the ones who determine the standards and practices for using the Bible.

They will control the images, and they will have the power to shape our communities. But if our communities demand that leadership is earned on the basis of gifts of the Spirit, or stability of marriage, or integrity under stress, then those who fit the alternative criteria will determine the standards and practices for using the Bible. What is vital to remember is that it is community choice that determines who has the power to use the Bible, and it is the result of these choices that make the Bible a tool of power. Those fundamental choices about leaders, made collectively through our sense of their social qualities, fitness for the job and reliability, determine the interpretive outcome. There are no final standards for what the Bible means to our lives, only the standards that those in charge of biblical interpretation provide to shape us in directions they find appropriate. The consequence is that when we try to use the Bible for our collective ethics, we must be extremely careful about who we use as our source of interpretation. The interpretation will emerge from the interpreters, and not from the Bible in and of itself.

But it isn’t just the interpreters we need to watch, it is also ourselves. The interpreters we desire will always be those who most look like ourselves, who reflect our own selfish class and social interests. Each of us is always most comfortable with those who match our education, social standing, occupation and life experience. Those are the folk who think most like us and will challenge us the least. They allow us the greatest level of comfort with our existing biases and preferences. Our choices of those who interpret will always be those who make us feel the happiest with the way we are right now. We cannot be trusted to choose those who will shape our interpretation.

Oddly enough, the solution to this situation is to read the Bible. The Bible is not holy by accident. It got that way because it has the power to transcend and confront all those who read it seriously, regardless of their level of education, ability to interpret or social standing. The images transform our way of seeing and challenge the structures of power, even while they become the pillars of power. It is a continuous process of renewal and change, as the Bible unsettles each one of us.

An economic example

Let’s look at the economic issue of what constitutes “enough.” When have we accumulated enough goods or had enough wonderful experiences, that we can say we have enough?

There are two simple biblical answers to the question of what constitutes “enough”:

• The first is that there is never enough. God rewards those who do God’s will with an abundance of material resources. The Bible is laced with images and imaginations of God’s superabundant grace of material bounty to those who demonstrate obedience. It might be Abraham, or it might be Job, or any of dozens of passages that spell out the theme of blessing. According to this answer, there is never enough because God never tires of blessing the good.

As you may have noticed, there are any number of preachers willing to spell out this interpretation in detail. They will identify how and why God rewards the good. They will identify exactly what one must do to be that kind of good. They will preach with intensity and at great length on the goodness of God and how God’s goodness flows down to those who worship God. These are typically smooth-talking folk, older and clean shaven, dressed in high-middle-class styles and living lives of relative opulence.

• The other biblical answer is that any wealth is too much. God calls those who have, to give to those who have not. This is Jesus’ explicit message in Luke. In Acts, it is a key commitment of the first Christians. Throughout the Bible, there are any number of teachings and images of holiness found in and through poverty. God sees the poverty of those who seek the well-being of others as a divinely approved existence.

As you may have noticed, there are any number of preachers willing to spell out this interpretation in detail. They will identify who is poor and who is wealthy, and how the wealthy can contribute to the needs of the poor. They will fervently preach at great length on the responsibility that wealth brings and how God has a preferential option for the poor. These are typically rough-talking folk, young and bearded, dressed in low-middle-class styles and living lives of relative poverty.

Now here is where it gets difficult. Which you think is right, or most right, is more predictable on the basis of your current situation than on anything in the Bible. It is not a matter of biblical interpretation; it is a question of which plays closest to your existing biases. Those who influence you and help you to make decisions about “enough” will be those who help you live just the way you are living.

For the relatively prosperous, the idea that God blesses the good is almost impossible to ignore. For the relatively poor, the idea that God blesses those who are generous to the point of poverty is almost impossible to ignore. The power to influence is in the economic class, not the Bible.

The Bible itself goes in neither direction, or, rather, in both directions, and a dozen more. The Bible opens paths that challenge every perspective. Wealth? Well, yes and no. But so also other issues. Slavery? Well, yes and no. Women in authority? Well, yes and no. Divorce? Well, yes and no. War? Well, yes and no. And on and on.

The Bible both affirms and challenges every perspective. That does not mean there is no consistency. Somehow every story and theme has the same origin: A loving God. And the same goal: human peace. But how those two get worked out is so very different that almost every strategy we can think of is biblical in some sense.

If we had our way, it would all be simple and unchanging, and just like us. But that is not the Bible. Nor would that bring a complex and diverse humanity to a place of peace. It takes truly holy Scripture to force us to step outside of our complacent boxes, no matter what shape our boxes may be.

Biases on both sides

Both liberals and conservatives are trying to make the Bible say what they want it to say, to interpret it for their own conditions and prejudices. The poor, no less than the rich, desire to interpret Scripture in a way that helps them feel good about their condition. That is what it means to be human and subject to power. And that is what we would do to the Bible if we could, and that is what we want our interpreters to do for us: Give it to us simple and never really challenging.

However, the Bible is a power that is a challenge to our personal, community and congregational power. A careful read of the Bible, a deeply committed read, holding holy Scripture as transcendent, leaves us in no happy place. It never leads to authoritative interpretation or teaching positions. It does not clarify truth or help us understand the world in divine terms.

Instead, that careful, committed read of holy Scripture leads to the inability to rest at peace with any stand on any issue. It pushes us to know that there is always more, that God’s universe is bigger than we can imagine, and that the story is never really said and done. It forces us to look at each other with a question mark, not a certainty, and to sit together in both awe and frustration—awe that our story is that of a loving God deeply entrenched in the muck of ordinary life, and frustration that it isn’t simple, and just maybe we are going to have to do some work of our own.

Reading the Bible for ethics is an act of power. Ultimately, it is our power, a power liberated by the text, but requiring our decisions, our hard work, our discipleship. But it is also our power because it breaks our power, confronts our interests, challenges our easy answers and violates our boundaries. It is not the type of power that makes us happy, but it is the power that leads to ultimate peace.

Bruce Hiebert, M.Div., Ph.D., is a faculty member in business ethics at University Canada West, as well as a lecturer in Mennonite history at the University of the Fraser Valley, and adjunct faculty member in ethics at the Vancouver School of Theology. He is a former Mennonite minister and long-time member at Langley Mennonite Fellowship, to whose members this document was addressed.

--Posted Feb. 27, 2014

Also in the series:

Part 1- Imagination, hope and peace

Part 3- Storytelling and the people of God

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